The internet filter bubble

January 7, 2012

Thanks to Google’s search engine we now have the ability to retrieve instantly a massive amount of information on virtually any topic or any question we might have. On the surface, it seems that we are all better informed and more knowledgeable as a result of Google.  But are we?

Consider the fact that Google recognizes  users and collects information on their digital behavior–their favorite searches, articles they have read on Google news, and even their choice of words.  Everything is recorded, the pattern is analyzed, and a user profile is created. Then, when you perform a search, Google tries to find more of the sort of stuff you like and rank its findings in accordance to what the algorithm calculates to be your preferences.

But Google’s efforts to “please you” as much as possible come at the cost of neutrality. With your very first clicks on a certain topic you start the process of constructing a self-reinforcing bias. You choose one or two results, Google recognizes your choice and will remember your preference for the next time you search anything related to the topic. Hence two users with different search histories will end up with a slightly different or sometimes even completely different set of results for the same search term entered. It’s called the internet filter bubble since the end result of this filtering process is that every user is living in his or her own little information bubble.

The topic of climate change serves as a good example to highlight the problems with this. If you take, say a scientist already convinced that climate change is real and anthropogenic, she’ll probably choose findings that reinforcing her beliefs. Google perceives her characteristics and the process begins. A climate skeptic, on the other hand, will chose a different set of results from the start, setting up a different self-reinforcing bias. Then, when scientists or activists attempt to inform the public of the dangers of global warming, their attempts are mostly in vain, because the kind of information they are putting out for public consumption will not be delivered to the people who most need to hear it.

Unfortunately most internet users seem to be unaware of the internet filter bubble or the dangers involved in it, believing instead that the internet provides them with objective information.  In Google’s defense, while the service itself cannot be deactivated, they are aware that some users may want to maintain their balanced view on the internet and therefore offer help to circumvent the service.

 The following two-part interview with Eli Pariser provides a nice account of the problems with the internet filter bubble.



Tags: , , , ,

One Response to The internet filter bubble

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Democracy Now